Practice or Drill?

There are a couple of terms that are often used pejoratively in education discussions and yet possess an interesting relationship with reality. “Drill” and “Memorisation” are generally considered to be bad things; the kind of stuff that puts children off education. However, if we replace the term “drill” with “practice” then it is trivially true that it is a desirable thing. Who ever mastered anything without sufficient and sustained practice? Similarly, would we not also want our students to remember what they have learnt? If they do not, then can we even say that they have learnt anything at all? So, “memorization” is perhaps not all that bad.

Of course, deployment of these terms is part of the romantic education-as-an-awakening-from-within narrative that sets itself against attempts to transmit knowledge and skills from experts (teachers) to novices. And yet, as we have seen, the logic is hard to sustain.

It therefore sparked my interest to be involved in an exchange with Jo Boaler where she sought to draw some kind of a distinction between ‘drill’ and ‘practice’:

Boaler Tweet - Drill or Practice

At first sight, it also seems trivially true that being ‘thoughtful’ is a good thing and that if this distinguishes drill from practice then practice is, indeed, more desirable. However, this reminded me of Alfred North Whitehead’s prescient words that I have quoted before on this blog:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Whitehead is right. My research is in the area of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and, as with much educational theory, CLT bears a striking resemblance to common sense. Certainly, Whitehead was anticipating CLT with this quote.

The point is that we have limited processing capacity; a limited ‘working memory’ with which to solve problems. This becomes easily overloaded – cognitive overload. To circumvent this limit, we may (largely unconsciously) draw upon our long term memory. The fact that items can be pulled into the working memory from the long term memory with little conscious effort causes us, I believe, to underestimate this facet of how the mind works. In turn, this leads to the sorts of statements that we see about knowledge being unimportant or that students can just look things up when they need to.

To give an example from maths, the area that Jo Boaler and I were discussing, it is unhelpful to have to devote precious working memory resources to calculating 6 x 8 or to apply a ‘strategy’ to find the sum of 11 and 7. It is far better to just know these basic maths facts – i.e. retrieve them from long term memory – and therefore free working memory to interpret the problem or to produce a mental model of the situation.

Drill, especially timed drill, is excellent for promoting the swift retrieval of such facts from the long term memory. It utilises the testing effect which has been demonstrated to be highly effective, particularly for relatively simple items such as these. If there really is a distinction between drill and practice such that practice is the more flatulent kind of a thing then drill is what we should aim for.

11 thoughts on “Practice or Drill?

  1. The difference I would perceive between the two words is more to do with the adult/child relationship and the underlying intentions. Personally I would think of a ‘drill” as something where the adult directs repetition of a particular skill, in a repetitive format, while the word ‘practice’ is something that I can see the child doing alone, as well as with an adult’s support. In other words, my kid can practise her guitar by ‘playing around’ with the different tunes/chords she knows in her bedroom of an evening, whereas if her teacher got her to do a series of scales in a lesson, that would be what I would describe as a ‘drill’.

    Similarly, when I was a dancer, I would see ‘drill’ as exercises such as plies at the barre which have a sequence that is repetitive, and which usually stays the same each time. However, I might practise a new sequences of dance steps in a more disjointed way. For instance, I could decide to focus over and over on a part with some tricky choreography or a difficult move in it, rather than always completing the full sequence at first.

    I don’t see it as part of a narrative of awakening from within or whatever, it’s more about the intention behind the use of either technique, and the intent or focus that the learner or teacher has while doing it. I think there is a difference and it’s not just semantics to say as much.

  2. A great post which identifies how wording has become more important than what the outcome is. Am reading Peal at the moment and had not realised that SSP was the way that reading was taught in the past!! All drills and whole class teaching but it did the job.

  3. Another point about drill is that it has always been used in sports and the performing arts. In these areas, no one has ever argued that you have to think about things all the time. It has always been obvious that master tennis players or ballet dancers practice to the point of automacity. My wife is a pianist and she could always see a clear distinction when growing up between the real hard work she did practising the piano and the soft focus muddling that went on in school.

  4. This may be a bit off the subject, but as a child I could never remember my multiplication tables, no matter how much I practiced. My mom bought me records to play them in song. We also played games to help me remember but to no avail. It caused me great pain throughout my educational career (Master’s degree). I always had very high scores on standardized tests (SATs, GREs, etc.), but my poor math scores would bring down the overall score tremendously.

    I always felt as if I were missing a part of the brain that processed numbers. I called it the opposite of dyslexia, but mostly I was told it was lack of motivation (not! I would study, study, study and still struggle in any math class) or a mind block, telling myself I couldn’t do it.

    I’m in my 5th decade of life and still feel incompetent when it comes to numbers.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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